As in previous years, I’m binge-reviewing the latest season of Netflix’s House of Cards, the TV show that helped popularize the idea of “binge watching” when it premiered in 2013. Don’t read farther than you’ve watched. (The whole series will appear here.)
Episode 4 (Chapter 56)
Here it is: House of Cards finally spiraling into the true American nightmare it always threatened to be. Frank’s count-up of authoritarianism at the end of the episode—2020, 2024, 2028, 2032, 2036—made for an excellently hammy reveal of the Underwoods’ long con. Claire even winked! But it also felt like the show announcing a new phase, one that dares the viewer to call it preposterous even though we live in times of open anxiety about democracy’s fragility.
How’d we get to this point? This hour opened with “the end” rolling from Double Indemnity, and at first it seemed the filmmakers were punning on the notion that it was the Underwoods who were at their end. Outside the Oval Office, staffers nervously gossiped about the election returns spelling defeat for the incumbents. When those staffers turned to scrutinize the Underwoods as they passed by, it was the kind of scene that couldn’t help but conjure the memory of the Javits Center the night of November 8.
The reason for the Underwoods’ apparent defeat—dampened enthusiasm among Democrats for their technocratic candidate accused of corruption—also seemed plenty familiar. “How many scandals should the public be asked to endure before they say ‘enough?’” Tom Hammerschmidt aptly asked on CNN. I’ve complained previously that this show doesn’t seem to care about the American electorate at large, but the truth is Cards puts viewers in the same position as isolated politicos such as Frank and Claire. Voters are a distant, notional concept—until they show up to demonstrate that the Underwoods’ powers have limits.
But the first couple are sinisterly working towards removing those limits. All season long they’ve used the pretense of terrorism to influence the public, the media, and Congress—but now, they’re actually making terror to manipulate the electoral process itself. We don’t exactly know what happened in Knoxville, but it seemed to involve an agent of the Underwoods inciting such panic that 20 people ended up in the hospital. This power grab is now literally spilling blood—as coups, almost inevitably, do.
The chain reaction that results from the Knoxville incident has that yada-yada, don’t-sweat-the-details quality that so many previous House of Cards plot tangles have carried as well. The bottom line is that the appearance of voter suppression combined with terrorism-related panic has called into question the integrity of election returns throughout the country. The Underwoods and their team, at every turn, deftly practice reverse psychology, professing to want the absolute opposite of what they actually want. Their calls to keep polling places open are actually calls for them to be shut down. And Frank’s concession is a ruse—something that Will Conway seems to on some level realize, judging by his weary, shell-shocked look as those around him begin to celebrate.
We are led to believe it is the brazenness of the Underwoods’ lies, the sheer unthinkability of their sabotage, that gives them a chance of pulling it off. “Spare me the conspiracy talk,” Seth says to Sean Jeffries, the charming new reporter on the Underwood beat. “The government’s not that powerful, or competent.” He’s spouting the conventional wisdom of the kind that has helped ensure the continuity of U.S. civil society for more than two centuries. That faith in the process is also exploitable as a weakness, it turns out. The question now: Did “the end” at the start of the hour actually refer to American democracy itself?
Previously: Season 5, Episode 3
Next up: Season 5, Episode 5